Three Minds to Heal a Broken World

The world is broken. From the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, to police and citizens battling in the streets of Ferguson, the world is broken. From the inhumane and exploitative factory farming practices that put cheap food on our tables, to the murderous rampages of the drug cartels down in Mexico, the world is broken. From the actions of those with money and power who use them both to keep them both, to our dependence on cheap fossil fuels that is driving climate change and the likely extinction of numerous species, the world is broken. Nonetheless, I’m hopeful. I think this brokenness can be fixed, as long as we come to understand its nature.

The nature of the world’s brokenness is that we all too often think that the brokenness is somewhere else, or in someone else. We rarely grasp the fact that the brokenness is in each and every one of us. Ah, but don’t we all behave like little despots much of the time! It’s just that when we wield whatever power we have we profess to do so for the sake of righteousness and law and order – or just plain old entitlement, for that matter – but when another does so we call it rude, oppressive, destructive, or evil. We want things to go the way we want them to go, with the least amount of effort on our part, and with the most of whatever it is that we desire in return. But as soon as the desires of another come into conflict with our own we stand ready to fight, to kill even, in order to shape the world to our advantage. And all the while that we behave in this way we cry out to the heavens, or to anyone who will listen, that we just want peace. We just want peace. Why won’t everyone just behave in a way that allows us peace?

Sanshin - a three-stringed instrument

The Japanese have a three-stringed instrument called the sanshin, the design of which likely originated in China. Sanshin also refers to the three minds that one should cultivate in order to help create a harmonious monastic community: joyful mind, nurturing mind, and magnanimous mind (kishin, roshin, and daishin, respectively). These three minds were discussed in one of Zen’s most influential teachings, Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Zen Cook), by the 13th century monk, Dogen Zenji. A modern translation of this text, with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama, is available in From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment – Refining Your Life (Uchiyama, 1983). An online translation of Tenzo Kyokun is also available.

Instructions for the Zen Cook encourages engagement in all aspects of the work that is so deep, complete, and mindful as to be an act of meditative absorption in and of itself. But the work of the Zen cook is especially profound and impactful due to its potential to benefit each and every other monk in the monastery as they proceed with the fulfillment of their respective spiritual callings as best they can. Dogen says:
[W]hen working in any position of responsibility, not only as tenzo [Zen cook], but as any officer or assistant, strive to maintain a spirit of joy and magnanimity, along with the caring attitude of a parent. (Uchiyama, 1983)

I pick up the thread of Uchiyama’s commentary here, gleaning a broader, modern, and secular meaning from Dogen’s original text. Does the cultivation of a joyful mind, a nurturing mind, and a magnanimous mind not speak to us this very day as we try to come to grips with the violence that seems so rampant in our broken world? Let’s explore these three minds just a little bit further.

Dogen says of joyful mind:
A joyful spirit is one of gratefulness and buoyancy…. How fortunate we are to have been born as human beings [as opposed to some other state of being in which] …. our bodies and minds would be bound by the limitations and afflictions of those worlds and would have to suffer their burdens. (Uchiyama, 1983)
This joyfulness is rooted in the realization that we already have enough of what we need to be happy. When we stray from this understanding of sufficiency we want more and more. We start looking at what our neighbors have and we become envious, or we simply take what we want from them, without one iota of concern for whether they have sufficient resources of their own.

On nurturing mind, Dogen writes:
A parent, irrespective of poverty or difficult circumstances, loves and raises a child with care. How deep is love like this? Only a parent can understand it. A parent protects the children from the cold and shades them from the hot sun with no concern for his or her own personal welfare. Only a person in whom this mind has arisen can understand it, and only one in whom this attitude has become second nature can fully realize it. (Uchiyama, 1983) 
What are the limits of such a nurturing mind? Is it possible for us to consider those who have committed the most heinous acts of violence as we would wayward children who have lacked the appropriate guidance and opportunity that might have steered them down a more productive path? Is it possible to lament the fact that we’ve really not been very good "parents" after all? Is it possible to recognize the role that we have played in making the world the violent place that it is and strive to do a better job in the future? Oh, sure, it’s easy to pretend that the perpetrators of such violence are simply “demon children”, born of evil, not part of us at all. It’s easy to pretend that we had nothing to do with creating the world as it is today. Dare I descend into colloquial sarcasm and inquire: How’s that workin’ out for you?

Finally, on magnanimous mind, Dogen writes:
[It] is like a mountain, stable and impartial. Exemplifying the ocean, it is tolerant and views everything from the broadest perspective. Having a Magnanimous Mind means being without prejudice and refusing to take sides. When carrying something that weighs an ounce, do not think of it as light, and likewise, when you have to carry fifty pounds, do not think of it as heavy. Do not get carried away by the sounds of spring, nor become heavy-hearted upon seeing the colors of fall. View the changes of the seasons as a whole, weigh the relativeness of light and heavy from a broad perspective. (Uchiyama, 1983)
So, are there limits to what the magnanimous mind will tolerate? Are we to take everything in stride – even the slaughter of innocents? I don’t think so. But I do think we need to view such slaughter from the broadest possible perspective. What is the motivation of the perpetrators? What are the causes for such actions? What are the conditions from which those actions arise? Does “refusing to take sides” mean remaining aloof and unengaged? Once again, I don’t think so. One cannot be nurturing if one is aloof and unengaged. But how would a parent respond to one of their children striking another? Would the child be disowned as if “demon spawn”? Of course not, and neither would the parent ignore what had just transpired and do nothing.

Yes, the world is broken. But fighting over who is responsible for breaking it and who is responsible for fixing it will not get us very far. Should a novice Zen monk make some grave mistake that causes a fire that destroys the monastery’s kitchen and larder, the Zen cook will not harbor thoughts of blame or ill will. He will take responsibility. He will look within and try to understand how it was that he did not understand the mind of that novice monk and the inadequacy of the training that he received.

In closing, Dogen states:
Whether you are the head of a temple, a senior monk or other officer, or simply an ordinary monk, do not forget the attitude behind living out your life with joy, having the deep concern of a parent, and carrying out all your activities with magnanimity. (Uchiyama, 1983)
Please, let us try.


Uchiyama, K. (1983). From the Zen kitchen to enlightenment – Refining your life. (Tr. by Wright, T.) Published by Weatherhill, Inc. Tenzo Kyokun written by Dogen Zenji in 1237.

Image Credits

Photograph of a sanshin via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank


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